With the Government giving less to art and education,somebody’s got to give more. And that somebody is America’s corporations.footnote1
Such statements were a common feature of the Reagan era, designed to place business before the public consciousness as an enlightened patron of the arts. They are indicative of a wider phenomenon that characterized the decade of the 1980s under successive Reagan and Thatcher governments—the unprecedented intervention of business in contemporary culture. Never before had the corporate world in America and Britain exercised such sway over the range of high culture, in which business involvement had previously been thought of as inappropriate, if not completely alien.
Corporations had, of course, for some time been making contributions to art museums and other cultural organizations. In the 1970s, while continuing in the generally passive role of being solicited for donations, businesses had begun to be active participants in the framing and shaping of the discourse of contemporary culture. What was new in the 1980s was that this active involvement became ubiquitous and comprehensive.
This essay sets out to plot a small but important part of this trajectory whose impetus lay in the free-market policies and ethos of the Reagan and Thatcher decade: the great influx of corporate capital into visual art institutions. Looking specifically at the contemporary art world, I will examine the ways in which businesses successfully transformed art museums and galleries into their own public-relations vehicles, by taking over the function, and by exploiting the social status, that cultural institutions have in our society. Given the scope of this essay, it is not possible to discuss the public policy implications of this phenomenon.footnote2 Yet it is worth recalling that the relation between public policy and business sponsorship in Britain is so close that Colin Tweedy, director of the Association of Business Sponsorship for the Arts (absa), went as far as to suggest that sponsorship was one of the cornerstones of Thatcherism.footnote3
During the 1980s corporate art collections were being set up with increasing frequency on both sides of the Atlantic. Using their economic power, modern corporations, armed with their own curators and art departments, vigorously emulated the former prerogatives of public art museums and galleries by organizing and touring their own collections at home and abroad, and by incorporating an art gallery or hosting a branch of a public museum within their premises. More importantly, corporations established contemporary art awards, giving them considerable cultural visibility, along with the appearance of being the arbiters of society’s taste. Business influence is thus well advanced in every phase of contemporary art—in its production, dissemination and reception.